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Livestock in the changing landscape in India: its environmental, social and health consequences and responses

An intercooperation report examining the environmental destruction caused by the growth of the Indian livestock industry.

A few related points

Methane emission, degradation of common lands and grain based intensive poultry production are causes of serious concern. Large scale industrial production units, especially poultry are on the increase in India. Though there are several regulations to prevent over-use and undermining of natural resources, their strict enforcement is a challenging task.

Liberalisation of livestock

The GoI also took a number of policy initiatives to boost exports of livestock products, especially buffalo meat (Birthal and Taneja, 2006). Minimum export price condition for meat was abolished in 1993, and exports of milk, cream and butter were freed but subject to quota. The export-oriented units and the firms in the export processing zones are allowed duty-free import of goods for manufacturing and processing. They also enjoy tax holidays and other benefits such as concessional rent, sales tax, excise duty, corporate taxes etc.

One of the reasons for the tremendous growth in export of buffalo meat from India is its liberalisation policy. A number of modern export-oriented processing units have been established in the private sector in collaboration with foreign firms.

Land

The grazing intensity in India is already very high. In rainfed areas, the present stocking rate is 1-5 adult cattle units (ACU) /ha against the rate of 1 ACU /ha allowed by government norms, while in arid zones, the stocking rates are 1-4 ACU /ha as against 0.2-0.4 ACU /ha (Shankar and Gupta, 1992). It is estimated that about 100 million cow units graze in forests against a capacity for 31 million. More than 80 per cent of resource poor households depend on common property resources for the fodder requirement of their livestock.

This is further aggravated by a steady decline in common grazing areas. The quality and productivity of grazing lands are also showing a declining trend due to improper management, unregulated land use, over grazing and lack of reseeding of pastures. The pastoral system is putting more pressure on the limited land available. It is argued that one of the reasons for deforestation is uncontrolled grazing

Water

Another important consequence of reduced crop livestock integration is its impact on water use efficiency. A much discussed study conducted to estimate irrigation water productivity of dairy animals in Gujarat (Singh et al, 2004) found that 1,900 to 4,600 litre of water were used to produce one litre of milk. Milk and meat production, particularly if based on intensive grain feeds and irrigated forages, requires 10-50 times more water than crop production (Onyekakeyah, 2006).

Pollution 

The IFPRI-FAO study conducted by Mehta et al (2002) shows that there are bio-security issues associated with industrial poultry production in India such as air pollution, polluted water, soil toxicity, wastage disposal and health hazards, especially when the production units are located too close to densely populated areas. Farms close to densely populated areas and water bodies produce ecological harm due to over concentration of nutrients and human health issues. The same thing will happen in rural industrial units as well if the wastes are not properly handled /managed. It is reported that 250 chickens produce about 135 kg of nitrogen and 95 kg of phosphorous per year. Water pollution may occur if nutrients from manure enter the water body, especially when there is rain.

Air pollution results as the nitrogen in manure is converted to ammonia (almost 85 per cent of the feed nitrogen is unutilised and excreted through manure). Soil toxicity occurs when there is a build-up of nitrogen and phosphorous in the soil deposited through manure over a period of time. The rampant use of antibiotics is also a major concern for the health of the public at large.

Issues from industrial dairy /piggery production units will also cause similar threats to the environment. Here the issues will be all the more serious as manure is produced in liquid form. Unlike in the case of poultry, the manure can easily enter water bodies, unless strict precautionary measures are taken.

Carbon emissions 

India has the highest density of cattle and buffaloes as well as small ruminants, reared under an extensive system - small herds in large numbers dispersed over a vast area. Also livestock is fed poorly under this type of rearing - inadequate rations based on feeding less digestible crop byproducts and grazing on poor quality rangelands. These conditions are most conducive for release of high levels of methane via enteric (in rumen) fermentation into the atmosphere.

A cow emits around 100 kg of methane every year. Methane gas is 24 times more aggressive than CO2 in contributing to climate change. The methane contribution by livestock in India towards global warming is significant. Natcom (an organisation under the Ministry of Environment and Forests, GoI) has estimated that in 1994 around 300 million bovines plus 180 million small ruminants produced around 10 million metric tonne (mt) of methane In India, which is 15 per cent of the global methane production from livestock.